Ick, Ticks! Don't Let These Suckers Force You Indoors
I love the woods. It is my happy place, and I love bringing my kids to share it. But I hate ticks. They give me the heeby jeebies. Over time, I have learned to live with these little pests. As much as I would love to steer clear of them completely, ticks are like any risk for my kids and me — I want to be educated and focus on how to manage the risk so we can still enjoy the great outdoors.
For those of you who feel similarly, here’s the information that has helped me get the most out of nature during high tick season:
What ticks should you worry about?
Not all ticks present the same danger. If you can identify ticks, you can better identify the risks associated. See the chart of the common ticks at different life stages.
Ticks at the nymph and adult female stage are the most likely to transmit disease. Though they eat all year, they usually feed in the spring and summer. You can find more information about the life cycle for each tick type on the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter.
According to the CDC, of all of the tick-borne diseases, the most common is Lyme, with an estimated 300,000 cases in the U.S. each year. That is less than .1% of the population; although, incident rates are definitely geography dependent. The highest rate reported in 2015 was in Vermont, with around 85.5 cases per 100,000 people. Fortunately, Lyme can usually be treated with a round of antibiotics, and, in most cases, has no lasting effects, especially if caught early.
If geeking out on tick info makes you feel more prepared, the CDC has some cool maps to show the geographic distribution of the most common ticks with links to their associated diseases. It is helpful to know the symptoms of the most common tick-borne diseases in your area, but remember that the tick-borne diseases are not very common.
How do you prevent tick bites?
So, now we get to the risk management part! In short, the best way to avoid tick-borne disease is the prevention of a tick bite. The good news is you do not need to stay indoors! Thanks to the following tested and trusted techniques, tick bites can be minimized.
Here is a quick list of my favorite prevention measures:
- Avoid optimal tick habitats such as areas that have high grass, lots of brush or leaf litter.
- Wear light-colored clothing so you can spot a moving black dot and pull it off yourself or your little ones.
- Tuck pants into socks and shirt into pants. Yes, you feel a little silly and sometimes hot, but you buy yourself much more time to spot the tick when you make them search for a spot to latch on.
- Use a lint roller over clothes and skin to catch ticks you didn’t spot before you get in the car or house. Don’t have a lint roller? Do a visual check before leaving the woods.
- Take off the clothing you wore outside and toss them in the dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes. Most ticks won’t survive the heat cycle.
- Take a shower within 2 hours of being in a likely tick zone. Ticks can be slow to nibble, so a shower can wash off any ticks that haven’t yet bitten.
- Do daily tick checks: generally, the longer a tick is feeding, the higher your chances of contracting a disease. Ticks can hitch a ride on backpacks, blankets, animals, you name it — so best to be safe and keep the tick check a part of the daily routine, at least in the prime tick months. Favorite places ticks like to go on your body include areas between the toes, back of the knees, groin, armpits, and neck, the scalp, and behind the ears.
- Use tick repellant: for me, it’s been worth designating some of my family’s clothing as “field gear” and treating it with permethrin, particularly shoes. We also use both natural and non-natural repellant sprays when necessary. The EPA has a neat tool to help you decide which, if any, repellant options are best for you and your family.
What do I do if I find a tick?
To start, just breathe. Then, remember that having a tick crawling on you or your kids is creepy, but no cause for alarm. If the tick has bitten one of you, follow these steps from the CDC to remove the tick. If you can, identify the type of tick it was and make a note of the day when the tick was found, along with any idea about where you might have picked it up. This can help your doctor if you're one of the rare cases that get sick following a tick bite.
In my many years of traipsing around in the woods (as a tree researcher, I have not stuck to trails), I’ve had a few tick bites. But, I have certainly tested these prevention steps, and they really work for limiting bites. The woods are still my happy place; and I still hate ticks, but I have learned to live with them as part of the nature I love so much.